Republicans need to move beyond Trump ahead of Georgia Senate runoff, say GOP strategists

As a pair of critical Senate runoff races approach on Jan. 5, Georgia Republican leaders find themselves in a conundrum, trying to balance indulging President Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud with supporting state GOP election officials.

“Certainly this is a very confusing period of time,” Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan told Yahoo News in a video interview Wednesday. “But it’s one that I think is important to separate fact from fiction.”

On Saturday, in the midst of the turmoil, Trump plans to travel to Valdosta, Ga., to headline a “victory rally” in support of GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. At the event, he plans to encourage Georgians to vote for the Republicans on the ballot, but he is also expected to claim that his loss in the presidential election was rigged.

Duncan, a Republican, will not be in attendance at the rally. Instead, the father of three said, he has a “great excuse to hang out with my boys.”

Regardless of what Trump will say, Duncan insists the president lost the November race.

“President-elect Biden is winning the electoral votes here in Georgia, and that’s certainly created a lot of emotion on both sides,” Duncan said. “Some folks have brought up issues around election integrity.”

Georgia Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan speaks to the media while seated in his office in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)
Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. (AP Photo/John Amis)

However, he insisted “there have been no signs of systematic or organized fraud” in Georgia. “Regardless of the fact the person I voted for didn’t win, that doesn’t change my job description,” he added.

Trump and Republicans, he said, should move on from this issue and focus their energy elsewhere.

“My encouragement to the president, my encouragement to Sen. Loeffler and Sen. Perdue is, let’s redirect any sort of energy we’ve got right now talking about election fraud,” Duncan added, “let’s redirect that on focusing on getting them back into the Senate and reaffirming their position as senators here in Georgia.”

Yet energy for Georgia Republicans is currently split between appeasing Trump and focusing on the Senate race, and signs of trouble from that tension are mounting.

Physical billboards have been spotted throughout Georgia that encourage residents not to support Perdue and Loeffler, because they are not pushing Trump’s claims of election fraud. “Perdue/Loeffler Didn’t Deliver For Trump,” they read. “DON’T Deliver For Them.”

On Monday, Trump slammed GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, whom he had previously endorsed, in a tweet as a “hapless” leader who refuses to reveal a “goldmine of fraud” in the Georgia election.

On Tuesday, Gabriel Sterling, a top official in the Georgia secretary of state’s office, gave an impassioned speech condemning Trump for challenging the state’s election results after a local election worker received death threats.

“Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language,” Sterling said at a Tuesday press conference. “Senators, you have not condemned this language or these actions. This has to stop. We need you to step up. And if you’re going to take a position of leadership, show some.”

Despite divisions within the party, Republicans want Georgians to elect Perdue and Loeffler. One problem, however, is that both GOP senators are caught in a bind: They are under pressure from Trump and his allies to challenge the integrity of the elections, yet they also need Republican voters to trust the process enough to turn out for the runoffs.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) speaks to supporters at the Stop the Steal the Defend the Majority Rally alongside Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020 in Canton, GA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks to supporters at a “Stop the Steal and Defend the Majority” rally alongside Sen. David Perdue, Nov. 20 in Canton, Ga. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In response, the two have called on GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, head of the state’s elections, to step down over unspecified “failures” in the election system, but stopped short of repeating the more incendiary and unsupported fraud allegations made by Trump and his allies.

“I am a fan of Perdue and Loeffler,” Amy Koch, a Republican strategist and former Minnesota Senate majority leader, told Yahoo News. “But the infighting is problematic, and both of them have been supportive of the president. Now Trump is upset with Georgia because he didn’t win. And you have a fired-up left who just organized something miraculous in Georgia, and that machine can keep rolling.”

The Democrats have created a machine that is moving forward, she added, while “Republicans are firing at each other. Right now we need to pull it together. I am worried about Georgia.”

Both Senate races, many experts say, are likely to come down to the wire. The difference of a few points will likely separate the candidates, and any fractures among Republicans could cause the scale to tip to the other side.

New polling from SurveyUSA shows that if the elections were held today, Democrat Jon Ossoff would edge out Perdue 50 percent to 48 percent, while Raphael Warnock would maintain a slightly bigger lead over Loeffler, to the tune of 52 percent to 45 percent.

But Trump’s visit to Georgia on Saturday could change things. Despite raging COVID-19 numbers, the Republican strategy has been to get in front of as many people as possible to stop Democrats from turning the country into a “socialist society.”

On Thursday, GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is set to headline a closed-door GOP mega-donor fundraiser for Perdue and Loeffler in Atlanta. Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott and Todd Young are also slated to be in attendance at the event, where dinner costs $25,000 per couple.

“Republicans had been preparing for this runoff race even as Democrats were floating the idea of breaking 50 on election night,” veteran Republican strategist Liam Donovan told Yahoo News, referring to Democrats’ hope of taking the Senate. “They had this operation planned out, bags packed and ready to execute by Nov. 4. Now they’re in the field with a 1,000-person canvassing operation as the Warnock and Ossoff campaigns are still figuring out if they intend to knock doors.”

But getting out in front of people is not the only issue for Republicans. They need to get Trump out of the way without alienating him, which is easier said than done.

President Trump at a campaign rally in Fort Wayne, Ind. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
President Trump at a campaign rally in Fort Wayne, Ind. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

“The optimal strategy for Republicans requires a level of nuance this president does not necessarily abide,” Donovan said. “Even in purple Georgia, it’s worse for a Republican to be seen as anti-Trump than overly supportive of the president. At some level this is about defusing the current firestorm and avoiding his wrath more than anything else.”

Koch, the Republican strategist, agreed, calling the president “the 800-pound gorilla” in the Senate runoffs. Trump “is making this Senate race incredibly difficult,” she said. “If he and Mitch McConnell are friends, they need to come together. They are not helping Perdue and Loeffler at all.”

Trump, according to Koch, has built a coalition of supporters over the past four years who are more dedicated to him than to the Republican Party.

“He’s solidified the base around him more than party principles,” she added. “We have to get back to our principles. It’s not about a person, it’s bigger than that.”

That may be easier said than done, but Georgia could prove the test case of whether the Republican Party can survive Trump.

Duncan, at least, is hopeful.

“I think that’s the beauty of our system here,” he said. “Just because the person you voted for didn’t win, it doesn't change your opportunity to still get things done. … There is not one person that makes this movement, and we need to remember that.”

Below are key dates for Georgians to remember ahead of the state’s Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5, 2021:

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: John Bazemore/AP Photo, Jessica McGowan/Getty Images (2)


Read more from Yahoo News: